Thursday, 28 May 2009

No Thought Today

No Thinking Sign, by Gray Woodland - released to public domainSo there I was feasting on bacon and egg sarnies this sunny Anglesey morning, when I came in for a pious ear-bending from BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day. The Reverend Roy Jenkins was explaining how - whilst he totally grokked the discontent of savers with prudent institutions like the Nationwide Building Society at being massively raided for Government levies to bail out insolvent Sphinx-building schemes whose investors had already trousered the proceeds of their unaffordably generous terms - he could somehow not get terribly worked up about it.

Sure, it was unfair, but God had made this an unfair world. Did not bad things happen to good people on a regular basis? And did other good people not then step in to help them, nay even to help sinners, without worrying about fairness or whose fault it might have been? Surely any community worth the name will feed the hungry, tend the sick, and comfort the sad for sweet charity's sake alone? Even so did the Son of God feed us, and tend us, and comfort us when our deserts were mere charnel-house vileness forever - and most unfairly take all those burdens upon His own shoulders, since no others were broad enough to bear them.

And the investors of Nationwide may deem it no ill thing, that they should follow in such Footsteps.

But wait! Who is that over there but 'Lucky' Satan Diabolos, dancing the hot metonymy shuffle with mickle glee and making obscene gestures behind the speaker's back?

Yes, it has happened again. We have slid imperceptibly between 'we, the bunch of guys and dolls giving succour to our distressed neighbours out of the love in our hearts', and 'we, Our Democratic Majesty Bob the Boss, giving love to Our distressed clients out of the savings of unwilling suckers'. And, lo, the characters of neither Bob the Boss, nor the guys and dolls whose identities he has annexed for purposes of making them suck it up, have been improved thereby.

I am not a Christian, though I admire Christ-like behaviour when I see it, and even aspire to it on occasion. But Christianity holds enough of a place in my affections that I can't help but wince when I see it too grossly abused, especially by those whose profession is to tend it.

And it seems to me that perhaps a Christian minister can reasonably be asked to distinguish between Jesus's sacrificing himself for the general good, and Pilate's sacrificing anybody handy for the same ostensible purpose.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Barring the Gates of Hell

'Circe Totally Pwning Odysseus at Immortal Wombat 5, D00d!', by John William WaterhouseMicrosoft have a patent application out for their own remote motion controller, which they’re calling the Magic Wand. No doubt we, and Wii, shall find out presently just how pixie-dusty it really is. However, they claim to have backed off on the old grail-quest for easy translation of real people’s features onto gaming characters - not out of technical difficulty, natch, but because of the dreadful danger of such power in the wrong hands:

"There was talk, a long time ago, about mapping people's faces on to characters," said Mr Ogden.

"However, there were concerns that people would stick real faces on it - such as Gordon Brown - and then spend all day shooting them. The world wasn't ready for that."

My first thought was that a claim of social responsibility is a lot easier than the shipping of a cool new toy.

My second was, that if their reasons were as represented, it is not a good outlook when whole technologies are suppressed for fear the fickle mob will disrespect politicians with them.

Actually, my personal observation suggests that this part of the world is just about exactly ready for the ability in question. But I admit that this displays a rather unattractive facet of human nature, and counsel that dartboard manufacturers voluntarily withdraw their products from sale forthwith, on similarly conscientious grounds.

But my third thought remembers that we are talking about all-beloved Microsoft, and immediately suspects them of speaking virtually the whole truth.

Save only that Gordon Brown’s might not be the image whose universal abuse they cannot bear to contemplate...

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Up to All Sorts

If there is one thing worse than being up to one's ass in alligators, it is surely being up to one's collarbone in crocodiles. Dis, of course, is what happens when you wade way out into de Nile!

In further news, my ex-flatmate has now finished clearing out her former den, and for the first time since the Miocene Epoch I have a living room again. Gracious soirées will be resuming any time soon.

Finally, I've got a couple of hundred words done this week on Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland, the rightmost panel of my long-stalled triptych Three Katherines of Allingdale. That is not a lot length-wise, but it's been enough to see Kate and Luke haul themselves out of many months in the Slough of Despond, and set boldly forth again to die in the light. This enterprise will be neither so straightforward nor so doomy as they now assume. I wonder how many of my own assumptions about their tale will be borne out.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Slipping Standards

On my way home Friday evening, I passed an Evening Standard newsboard which announced gleefully that the Great British Public were growing impatient, nay even surly, with their elected representatives. It took all my power to refrain from instantly horsewhipping the vendor and consigning every copy of his sorry rag to the fires of Moloch, or at least of a cheap cigarette-lighter.

This may require some slight explanation.

Following the Daily Telegraph's anti-democratic decision to whip up a spurious media frenzy by publishing our penurious public servants' modest expense claims – an offence which can only tend to deliver us into the hands of jacksuited fascist ratbags! – some of our weaker thinkers have fallen for the bait, and even raised vainglorious questions about just how paying for the permanent attendance of fifteen Finnish strippers clad only in baby oil and the ground-up dust of the Koh-i-Noor can be 'justified' as an essential expense of their Parliamentary duties.

Not I! For how should I know my Masters' jobs better than they? I, for one, am content to leave such matters to the duly qualified

But have I grown angry at this flagrant disrespect for those very great Members, who serve Britain hard and tirelessly as prize bulls every day of their lives? I have not. Rather, I present you with the headline in all its shamelessly preposterous accusation.


I do not think those words mean what the Standard thinks they mean.

Worse, somebody actually got paid for picking them.

And still nobody buys mine?!

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A Love Affair Is Not a Bar of Chocolate

Following some... fairly intense... political discussions elsewhere, my Muse's activist sister and I got chatting about a tendency towards bland ethnic monoculture in the supposedly fantastic and speculative genres. I observed that my current writing seems drawn towards unfashionable and neglected aspects of my own principal tribal identity, viz. Englishness. Cal, who is never one to beat about the bush unless there is a machete involved, responded gently,

"Since you say you'd like to see stories drawing on a wider range of societies, wouldn't it be better to write one yourself? After all, traditional white patriarchal Englishness has been explored really rather well in English literature already..."

Now, I have several reasons for believing that it hasn't often been explored well, by my standards, or at any rate not lately. And I do reckon that now is a peculiarly opportune time, for those of us who do not love the jingos or their lousiest-common-denominator parody of our culture, to be staking out a mensch-friendlier vision of our common heritage.

But to win with this would have been to lose a greater argument, because I have often stressed rather strongly that I don’t believe a tale is rightly wrought for purposes other than its own true telling.

"Nah," I said flatly. "My Art is sacred!"

Cal arched an annoying eyebrow. "I’m not trying to make you write anything you don’t want to," she noted. "I’m just saying. You might get all sorts of good things out of it. And I thought you did say it'd make the world a little better..."

"Not from me, at least not now!" I snapped. "Will you quit nudging?"

Cal looked at me. "You sound angry about something," she said coolly. "I don’t see where I come in for a share, though."

I took a deep breath, because Cal is not somebody with whom a wised-up dude will lightly quarrel. And suddenly I had the exact analogy I wanted.

"Okay," I said, "try this. If I get you right, you’re trying to be a good friend by saying something like:

"Instead of eating another boring old bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk, why don’t you try something like Maya Gold from Green & Black? It's really different, and very tasty, and you’ll be helping the causes we both believe in, into the bargain!"

"And what," she demanded yet more coolly, "apart from the predictably gratuitous insinuation of chocolate into the conversation, is wrong with that?"

"Not much," I said, feeling that my natural orneriness could go justify itself on its own time. "But what you don't know, is that what I'm hearing sounds a lot more like:

"Instead of going out with boring old Caddie Cadbury again, why don't you make a play for someone like Maya Greengold? She's really beautiful and exciting, and she could do a lot more good for the causes we both believe in, into the bargain!"

"And then of course we're going to fight. Because, good-time guy though I may be, there are limits!"

We stared at each other for several long moments. Finally Cal got up, and said glassily,

"I'm going out for a long walk, before I smack you. Give Caddie my best, you hear?"

But I think we understand each other a little better, now.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Romantic Old Rubbish

So I was reading today’s Metro on the morning train, and I came across an article by one James Ellis on the RAF Fylingdales base. This began with a romantic scenario of looking up at the starry sky, taking a sip of wine, and making a wish as a streak of light flashes across the heavens. But Mr Ellis warns us that we may come crashing down to Earth if we read on, where his interviewee explains:

"You're probably looking at a piece of space junk that is burning up on re-entry into the atmosphere."

The very same romantic dejection oppressed the late great Kirsty MacColl in her classic hit, A New England; wherein she "saw two shooting stars last night, and wished on them, but they were only satellites."

Smashing song, and all; but what a load of old rubbish!

Yes, it is a very glorious thing to see a star fall. Doubly so, when one knows whence the star came, and what long roads that aeons-old chip of nickel-iron has worn out before its last swan-dive in white fire.

But the metal in the junk is just as old, and was forged in the same stellar furnaces. And the junk is no crude nugget, but the shaped and fashioned tool of our minds and hands, launched by our own wit and will into the sea that is the sky, and coming home at last. What more has romance to ask?

It is a long fall for Mr Ellis’s piece of space rubbish, but it is a great skylarky exaltation for my earthbound human spirit. Whence our junk falls today, our grandchildren may rise tomorrow. I will raise a glass of wine and breathe a quiet wish to that, any old starry night!

And to those who will still hold with earth-spurning Kirsty on this matter, I can only shake my head in mortal wonder, and sing right along with my own personal backspin:

Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?
I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care...

Monday, 11 May 2009

Master of the Bum

A few evenings ago I ran into an amiable and articulate media academic, who runs a course leading to a Master’s degree in creative writing. This party argued persuasively that such courses offered great benefit to aspiring writers in general, and would probably help with my chronic completion problems in particular. Her only real caveat was that she could not pretend to bring forth fruit from the seed of a sterile imagination, which is fair enough.

Now, I’ve known a fair few writers who’ve gained a lot from the right courses - not least, in the difficult and inartistic matter of handling writing as a business. A University degree, though, seems inherently optimised for scholarly pursuits (such as criticism, or the study of literature as of pretty bugs, or discovering what sort of writing is approved by all the most respectable judges this go-around) rather than creative ones (such as storytelling, or the practice of painting butterflies, or delighting and provoking the neighbours with the word-borne enchantments of our desire).

I can see its worth for students of literature, and the peculiar value in learning how the job is done from the inside. And of course, being a student of literature, one way or another, goes with being a writer as ham goes with eggs. But credential-wise, a Master’s in Creative Writing strikes me as a fair recommendation for a post as academic or editor, yet dangerously irrelevant for a yarn-spinner. I should hate to see a fashion for hard-pressed editors, up to their necks in the slushpile as usual, starting to use academic writing credentials as a convenient quality-and-commitment filter. If the pool of candidates so qualified grew large enough, it could happen.

My learned companion disputed my take on these matters with considerable eloquence, though without convincing me I was wrong. She did convince me that part of her role was analogous to that of an old-fashioned hands-on editor, and that certain notable Achievers in my line had found her rather good at it. This was a better argument than any yet. Pressing this advantage, she darted nimbly in to point out that in this capacity, she should stand quite some chance of pushing me past that infamous non-completion problem. Reader, I wavered.

Then this reflection occurred to me - that if such is what I lack, then it is not a Master’s in Creative Writing I ought to be taking. It is a lot more like Applying Bum To Seat 101.

But I sat that test already!

It may, though, be time for a bit of revision.

Word tally yesterday was about fifty.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Don't Quixote

I was mooching along with songs from Man of La Mancha running through my head, and I just naturally harked back to a question that has troubled me before. Do I really admire Quixotry, or not? After all, Don Quixote in all his scraggy pomp is so romantic a figure that he even pretty much won over his cynical old author, before the end. Wherever a Mahatma Gandhi sits down or a Travis McGee rises, bloody but unbowed, to do what a body's got to do, the hooves of a broken-down nag in the sky can be heard by those who care to listen.

What shall we call Frodo's journey to Mount Doom, with a Ring of Power and a plan of campaign that Bill the Pony could have crapped for him in two minutes, but the very essence of the quixotic?

And what I love to read, I also love to write. So many of my own favourite protagonists - Princess Locket, seeking her friend to the round world's edge; Katy Elflocks, who wishes only to mind some small business of her very own, but whose courage and compassion take her down those roads where all heroes fail; even Alan Jansen, the millwright who is only romantic because he invariably tries to be kind and clever instead, in a world lousy with High Destiny In Capital Letters - have won my heart largely by appealing to my inner Don.

It's no accident that the books which transfigured Alonso Quixano were, in modern terms, smack-bang in the mainstream of popular fantasy. Our genre is his natural home and harbour.

And though I have no slain giants, or even notable broken windmills, to my tally, my goatish soul resounds so strongly to the tune of The Impossible Dream that I should have arranged ere now for that to be the chief song played at my eventual funeral, if not for a suspicion that it would be too much like bragging.

And yet, yet…

In the world of politics, Karl Popper and others have rightly scouted the bloody and arrogant spirit of Quixotry, and the ruin those crazy folk have wrought as they seek to remake the world according to their assorted impossible dreams. Presidente Quixote does not care that his dream is impossible, so it is no use complaining to him that life has become impossible since he imposed it. You must be either an oaf in need of a thwack, or a deceitful enchanter in need of his sword.

In less violent climes, there are… softer ways of making us all pretend we're living in the dream induced by our betters' having read too many inflaming books, and having gone forth into the wide world insufficiently often. But to the extent these ways make life outside the dream impossible, the end result may scarcely differ. I see far too much of this soft quixotry around in the West today, which worries me - and would worry me even if I weren't, as a writer, a sort of enchanter by vocation.

Is there any way to reconcile the magnificence of the lone and rusty self-appointed knight-errant, with the horror of the onset of the righteous horde?

I think that, perhaps, it is after all very well to ride out like Quixote - provided we listen to our Sanchos, and abide by one new rule, for our credit and our honour. My proposed Zeroth Law of Errantry goes something like this:

If somebody is menaced by a villainous giant, and they insist beyond all sense that it is actually a highly desirable windmill, then I will not meddle with this silly situation unless the giant proceeds to thump me, or somebody who actually wants my protection.

I grant that the Zeroth Law tends to rule out the vast majority of real-world errantry. I think this is a feature, not a bug.

After all, I need some down-time to polish my armour, and read deeply in tomes of knightly lore, as The Big Sleep and The Bumper Book of Windmills; and my castle does need such a deal of redecorating, which by-the-by I am now finally in a position to start!

I go to face, against all odds, the awful ogre Junkpile. Smoke me a kipper!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Batty Boffin In Bacon Butty Bombshell!

Professor David Spiegelhalter, who holds the ominously-titled Chair of Risk Understanding at Cambridge University, gets a platform on the BBC news site today for this judicious counterblast against the pusillanimous spirit of the age. Read it and slather on the ketchup.

But how he got this published, I don’t know. Literally thousands, over the course of our lifetimes, will surely die as a direct result of this single article’s dangerous advice. It is all very well to prate of free speech, but surely even one death is too many? Would you die for the smidgen of entertainment or information you got from this three-minute bit of pop-science filler? What if that death struck somebody you knew - or those thousands were all the people you knew? I rather think that question answers itself, don’t you?

Flaming torches at the ready, people - this is WAR!

[Wipes dribble from chin]

Sorry about that, everybody. I seem to have been briefly channelling Anagrammatic Ares, the patron deity of War-Toss. Anyway...

I have one quarrel with this article. In the good Professor’s explanation of the Prevention Paradox, I found the following summary puzzling:

These issues [of trying to get people to change what they do] are tricky, and reflect a basic tension between individuals' and society's points of view.

If everyone improved their lifestyle just a bit, then the benefits to the overall health of the nation would be large but each individual would not notice the difference.

This is supposed to explain why it's rational for people as social agents to want everyone to improve their lifestyle, and yet rational for them to consider personally that the game is not worth the candle. Alas, it makes no sense.

People are individuals. If the benefits to 'society' are large in such a way as to bring no noticeable benefit to any of its component individuals, who exactly is supposed to care about this whopping largeness, and why? Pfft! I may as well claim that public health in India is far better than it is in Britain, since the population is twenty times as big, and the top five per cent alone can rival us in aggregate health, even before we get to adding the healths of the other billion folks on top!

This absurdity made me suspect that either the Prevention Paradox was being mis-stated, or else that I was completely misunderstanding it. I even went so far as to figure out a partial justification, supposing that benefit per individual rose with number of hygienic individuals. That’s plausible - after all, it’s usually better to be surrounded by healthy people, as well as to be healthy in oneself. Unfortunately, a bit of Googling suggests that the Prevention Paradox is in fact stated quite accurately in the given form.

The only sense my layman's brain can make of this is that the 'paradox' arises where much of the impact of medical risk falls upon people other than the risk-taker. But isn't that just the familiar concept of moral hazard, hiding behind a white coat?

Be this all as it may, I think Prof Spiegelhalter fails strangely to follow through on his best previous points, when he urges the tension between the 'social' and the individual interests in living healthy lifestyles. If society’s interest is really a separate thing, then he seems to be neglecting the jollier half of it.

Suppose we start at the other end of his main argument, warning that,

"If everyone constrained their lifestyle a little bit, the costs to the overall happiness of the nation would be grave, but each individual would not notice the difference."

My happiness paradox and his health paradox ought now to cancel out. Yet his version appears to be respectable and widely-credited, whereas mine... does not. Such lack of public balance can only yield miserably inefficient solutions. I’m afraid that my social duty is clear.

I will gorge down this bacon, guzzle these beers, and Dyson up this chocolate, reckless of the risks I'm running - not because the pleasure they grant is worth it in purely selfish terms, but as an earnest sacrifice towards the overall happiness of my nation.

No, really!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

And Lo, There Was Much Housekeeping

A slight intermission has been occurring, as I’ve taken a break from wittering in order to learn how to wrangle this site, catch up with friends, and wrap my brain about the maddening alien artefact that is LiveJournal.

This will remain my blogging base, but LJ is so convenient for keeping in touch with the other Usual Suspects that I’ve decided to set up a small commenting-lodge there also, where I can be found under the alias caper-est. Jest and Reason had originally united behind 'caper-ex'; but dear Prudence thought it sounded too much like a handle under which some seedy swinger-type might post ungallantly concerning their previous conquests on YouTube; so, ahem, no. There are audiences whose attention I can just about live without.

Your regular dose of drivel is hereby restored with immediate effect. More features and links should be turning up here soon, as my time and techie competence allow. But nowt too fancy, since in all matters of the Web I subscribe heartily to the school which holds that Simpler Is Better.

In other housekeeping news, my flatmate and best pal is exiting this week, pursued by a great pride of cats, and my nine-month excuse for postponing the Great Redecoration has finally gone the way of all flesh. The fashionably dressed man shall be wearing a mighty lot of overalls this season.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Rise Up, Mrs Johnson, All in Your Gown of Green

...for summer is a-comin’ today! Yes, it is the only true and authentic May Day, and the thorn-blossoms are bursting forth in bubbly white sprays to salute lovely Lady Maia in her sunniest of moods. Let there be drinking! Let there be uninhibited dancing about inappropriately phallic totem poles! Let there be a great riding of hobby-horses - that branch of chivalry at which I chiefly shine! And above all, let there be singing!

Which brings me neatly back to the title of this post, and the fantastical mystery behind it.

Perhaps the merriest song to which I have ever stamped my big hobnail boots is the May Song of Padstow, a small but energetic fishing community on the west coast of Cornwall. Its memorably excellent rendition by Steeleye Span hooked me instantly on my first encounter many a year ago, and to this day I can never come over all spring-feverish without the tune’s dancing through my head, and compelling me to the most reckless snapping of fingers. I reproduce a version of the traditional lyrics here in full, with a bit of broad context:

[Gaily and gladly, as the mighty Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss parades rambunctiously through the town]:

Unite and unite, and let us all unite
For summer is a-comin' today.
And whither we are going we all will unite
In the merry morning of May.

The young men of Padstow, they might if they would,
For summer is a-comin' today.
They might have built a ship and gilded it with gold
In the merry morning of May.

The young women of Padstow, they might if they would,
For summer is a-comin' today.
They might have built a garland with the white rose and the red
In the merry morning of May.

Rise up, Mrs Johnson, all in your gown of green
For summer is a-comin' today.
You are as fine a lady as waits upon the Queen
In the merry morning of May.

[The ‘Obby ‘Oss sinks down as in death. Dirge]:

Oh where is King George?
Oh where is he-O?
He's out in his longboat, all on the salt sea-O.
Up flies the kite, down falls the lark-O.
Aunt Ursula Birdwood, she has an old ewe,
And she died in her own park-O.

[The ‘Oss springs up into life again. With redoubled joy]:

With the merry ring and with the joyful spring,
For summer is a-comin' today.
How happy are the little birds and the merrier we shall sing
In the merry morning of May.

Oh where are the young men that now do advance
For summer is a-comin' today.
Some they are in England and some they are in France
In the merry morning of May.

Two words occur. One is ‘Magnificent!’ The other is ‘WHAT?!?’

Even for a folk-song, the core section of these lyrics is a little bit mysterious, isn't it?

If this were a fantasy novel, here would lie the anciently-encoded clues to some quest of world-shaking importance. Is this the riddle we must read, if great Albion is ever to break free of its surly bondage in the Dungeon of Dole? After far-flung adventures and trials of which it ill behoves me to boast, I have obtained some intriguing hints from the Oracle of the Hamburgers, to whom I am also indebted for the details of the ritual.

But what is to be our plot? What coupons must we collect? Do we have to sign up for the trilogy?

The Council of the Good Guys is now open to suggestions.

I like saving the world by magic. It is ever so much simpler and more satisfying than the other way, and it comes with all that added non-faily goodness.

Meantime, a merry Maying to you all!